People & Culture

Robert Bateman on life, art and mice

At 94, Canada’s venerable naturalist painter reflects on a long career making art and keeping it real

  • Published Feb 06, 2024
  • Updated Feb 07
  • 1,142 words
  • 5 minutes
(Photo: Birgit Freybe Bateman)
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Regardless of the setting of Robert Bateman’s paintings, from the cold birch woods of Ontario, to the hot plains of Kenya to the adobe walls of New Mexico, they evoke an impression of elegy. The passage of time, as one form passes into another, moves through the shading, brush lines, and the positions of the painting’s natural subjects, whether that be rhinoceros, coyote or brown pelican. Bateman’s scenes are full of curiosity and clever allusions, but they are never innocent or grim, instead imbued with the indifference of natural symbiosis.

The apathy of Bateman’s subject is not mirrored in the artist. He was a close observer of the natural world from a young age; by 12 years old, he had painted every hawk and owl in North America. That age remains a pivotal marker for him — he posits that 12 is the age children stop spontaneously creating art, exchanging it for more communal activities, like sports.

Now, at 94 years old, he divides himself between his home on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, and a cottage in Ontario’s Haliburton County, which his family has been visiting since 1938. Bateman spoke with Canadian Geographic, reflecting on life and work from his home on Salt Spring Island.

On work

If you call painting working, I’m still working. Either I’ve never worked a day in my life, or I’ve never had a holiday — I’m not sure which. I’ve got a waiting list of people wanting commissions, but that doesn’t mean I’m working on that particularly. I’ve never heard of an artist who retired.

I taught high school geography and art for 20 years, and I didn’t think of that as work either. So, I do what I please. I try to challenge myself. Some artists get a reputation for a certain look or style, and it sells well, so they start cranking out imitations of themselves. That is creative suicide.

Although I taught them, I don’t believe in art courses. I tried to discourage all my kids from going to art college because if you’re going to be an artist, the best thing to do is do art. But it’s important to get a meal-ticket. I might be kidding myself, but I consider the [art] market dangerous to think about. If you paint for the market, you are working with one hand tied behind your back — the creative one. I haven’t really painted trying to sell; as a teacher, I never needed to finance myself by selling art. If there’s a market, it will sell. If it doesn’t, you better get yourself another job.

On beginnings

In the beginning, I went through all kinds of different artistic styles. I was, for a while in my twenties, a cubist. It was au courant in the 1950s, with Picasso. Then I became an abstract expressionist, because that was the next thing going on in art, what with Franz Kline and Clyfford Still.

It was Andrew Wyeth who gave me my Road to Damascus moment. Just as Christ appeared to Saul (later the apostle Saint Paul) on the road to Damascus, I was at the 1962 Wyeth show at the Albright–Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York [now the Buffalo AKG Art Museum]. I was in my abstract stage then, and thought that was the future of all art. Suddenly, there was this Wyeth guy, who was living between Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine, and who didn’t care what any of the art aficionados said. He just wanted to paint his world of Chadds Ford and Cushing in a realist style. His acceptance by the art world made it okay for me to turn to realism. It was an immediate conversion.

The cubism and abstract realism are still there, underlying my Wyethean realism. I have old nature paintings that are cubist or expressionist, and I still have a few of them that I respect and have hanging around the house.

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A self-portrait by Robert Bateman.
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On style

If you’re a naturalist, what matters is particularity. It matters that an immature red-tailed hawk has a particular look. It’s a bit like a rough-legged hawk, but it isn’t a rough-legged hawk. The difference between the two, like the difference between the bill lengths of the downy woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker, matter.

I’m probably 51 per cent artist and 49 per cent naturalist. If I have a dispute between art and nature, I let art win. But I wouldn’t want to paint a picture of a bird that was inaccurate. It would go against my grain.

Dalí said: “There is no cheating in art.” It’s an interesting and serious statement. There is forgery in art — one can easily do a fake Mondrian. Or a Modigliani, for that matter. It wouldn’t be that easy to do a fake Andrew Wyeth. But that’s breaking the law.

When one paints, you can put a stamp on a scene. You can make minor adjustments, make it weird, cubist or whatever. But you cannot judge realism against the decorative. It’s a complex thing. People might think it has to do with morality or ethics. I don’t agree. It’s a question of taste. There is nothing more moral or righteous about either.

Nature has none of those qualities either. Only change is implicit in nature, by which I mean coming and going, getting old, life and death. I’m looking out the window now at a hundred-year-old apple tree. It’s a russet apple, which isn’t produced commercially. It has all kinds of shape and character, with branches falling off. It’s still producing excellent apples. There are five or six apple trees here that are older than I am, and will be here longer than me, too.

On mice

Possibly the most important years in my life were the three years I spent at the wildlife research station in Algonquin Park at Lake Sasajewun, a job I got by fluke. It changed my life. I was like Kipling’s Brer Rabbit, bred and born in the briar patch. I felt I was bred and born to be in a wildlife research camp, studying the distribution of jumping mice or censusing birds.

Later, I worked a summer in Ungava, the little bite out of Northern Quebec. I was a mouse trapper looking for eastern heather vole, Phenacomys ungava. There are only two Phenacomys ungava [specimens] in all the museums of the world — and I caught about 85 of them that summer.

I have mice all over the world. There are mice with a little label saying “Robert Bateman, 1953,” or some such year, in the Royal Ontario Museum, the Chicago Field Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian. They’ll be around long after I’m gone. If I go down in history, it could be through my mice.

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